BIPP Guide to Copyright

Understanding the basics on copyright can help you discuss what you want and need from your photographer.

The Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 states - copyright of a photograph belongs to the person who took it, the only exception being employed photographers, where it is his or her employer who owns the copyright unless they have a contractual agreement to the contrary.

In practice, this means that clients may only use photographs taken by a professional photographer in ways that have been agreed at the time they were commissioned. If further uses are required at a later date, permission must be sought from the copyright holder and an additional fee agreed.

Copyright lasts for 70 years after the end of the year in which the author dies and offers protection against unauthorised reproduction of the photographs and entitles the owner to economic benefit from it.

For this reason, it is essential that clients specify the uses to which images be used - preferably in writing - when briefing a photographer and requesting a quotation. This agreement then forms part of the contract. The contract should cover how the work will be used, where (geographically) it will be used and for how long it will be used.

Copyright can be assigned to another person or company, but only if the photographer agrees. Assignment of copyright should normally be in writing, although an oral agreement could be considered binding. With simple images that are unlikely to have no wider commercial value, such as a pack-shot of a recognisable product, some photographers will be happy to asign copyright to their client. However, where the picture is more creative, or has further economic potential, for example as a library stock shot, it is essential that copyright remains with the photographer.

It should be noted that while the client who commissioned the work may hold onto it, the photographer, being the copyright owner, has a clear right of access to the material. Once the licensed period has expired, the photographer has the right to have the originals returned in good condition.

Copyright Vs Licence

Many clients of photographers will ask if they may have a copyright free disc of the images taken, meaning they can print and use the images as they like. Some photographers may agree, others may supply the disc ‘under license but not owning copyright’.

The difference between owning the copyright and having the images under licence is how the images may be used. Under UK Law, it is the photographer who will own the copyright of any images he / she has taken and it is illegal to use an image without a granted licence or rights. When images are supplied under licence it means that the photographer retains the copyright but licences the client to use the images for a specific use.

As an example, a photographer supplies a bride and groom with a disc of images under licence. The licence allows the couple to print the images, give copies to family and friends etc. However, a friend of the bride was the florist at the wedding and asks to use the images on her business website. In this instance the couple would have to gain the permission of the photographer for the images to be used in this way and also pay any fees applicable. The florist cannot use the images for commercial gain without the permission of the photographer, who owns the copyright.

‘Under licence’ means that you have the images for their mutually agreed / intended use – not for commercial gain.

At the end of the day, it is in the interests of all parties to know what is being agreed, hence the importance of a written contract.

Intellectual Property Office

The Intellectual Property Office is the official government body responsible for granting Intellectual Property (IP) Rights in the United Kingdom. 

There is comprehensive information on Copyright and licensing on their website, Their Information Centre are able to answer general copyright enquiries, they cannot give opinions or advice on infringement. They can be contacted on 0300 300 2000 or